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'Race’ to Victory

As The Amazing Race launches its seventh trek around the globe March 1, CBS is recruiting contestants to compete in two more rounds. The network recently ordered races 8 and 9 from husband-and-wife creators Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri. Amazing Race not only claimed the Emmy for best reality series two years running but was honored in January with the 2005 Producers Guild of America award for nonfiction TV.

Van Munster’s long résumé includes a stint with Fox’s breakthrough series Cops, while Doganieri spent a decade in advertising. That changed shortly after she married van Munster. One day, he asked her to pitch him an idea for a TV show. In less than five minutes, she came up with the concept for Amazing Race, a global scavenger hunt that forces pairs of contestants to work together in extremely stressful situations. The logistics are so complex it takes about 2,000 people to produce each race.

A ratings winner for CBS since it debuted in September 2001, Race ranks among the top 10 shows in any given week. Its co-creators talked with B&C’s Jim Finkle about the show’s creative challenges and why it works.

Why do you think this show has performed better in ratings vs. others?

Elise Doganieri: We have a show that’s real quality. People want to see quality. They don’t always want to come home and be brain-dead. You can feel good about watching it.

Bertram van Munster: You are also exhausted after you’ve seen one hour of it. You want to go to bed and sleep peacefully.

What’s the show really about?

BVM: It’s all about the story. The world and the situations you put them in are just in the background. The characters and the story are in the foreground.

What is the theme or nature of that story?

ED: The human condition. How do two people function when they are put under stress? They’re tired. They’re hungry and faced with financial issues and language barriers.

Have you made any changes to the game in season 7?

BVM: We made some really, really exciting tweaks that you’re going to enjoy.

Can you tell me about them?

BVM: I’d like to keep it as a surprise. But there are going to be things that are extremely exciting. When I first came up with this, I wasn’t sure if it was a brilliant idea. But it turned out to be an extremely good idea.

What is it like working so closely with your spouse?

BVM: We got married five years ago. It is almost a miracle we’re still married.

What makes it so difficult?

ED: It never ends.

BVM: The work never ends. You take it with you 24 hours a day.

Do you travel separately when you go overseas to plan the show?

ED: Bertram and I lay out the route. Bertram scouts six of the shows, I scout the other six. We come back and put all the ideas together and make it happen.

What is the most difficult thing about producing the show?

BVM: Everything.

ED: Creatively, it’s a challenge every season. We put a map up on the wall, and we start picking locations. We have to figure out logistics and creative.

BVM: And money.

ED: It doesn’t get easier.

BVM: What makes it difficult is that the show is not cookie-cutter. Every 44 minutes that we produce for CBS is almost always an experimental show. There is no formula to do this thing. There is fluidity in the show all the time. The contestants are on the move. We don’t know what they are going to do next.

There was a lot of controversy over the way Jonathan Baker treated his wife during Amazing Race 6. In particular, there was a shoving incident that troubled a lot of viewers. You reprimanded him, but many viewers said they thought you should have kicked him out of the game. In hindsight, do you wish you had thrown him out?

BVM: To tell you the truth, to a certain degree he did blindside me.

In what sense?

BVM: You cast somebody, and they show one side of themselves. Something else comes out when they’re under stress. That behavior I could not predict.

Have you changed your screening procedures as a result of what happened with Jonathan?

BVM: He’s actually not a bad guy. But it was very unusual the way he dealt with the stress of the show.

ED: We do psychological testing and background checks. That’s something we’ve done from the very start, and that will continue.

Let’s talk about safety. How dangerous is it for your contestants to be driving around in foreign countries in cars they may not feel comfortable driving?

BVM: They may look like jalopies, but these cars have been really tested and carefully checked by us.

What about the taxi drivers? Some of them seem kind of dangerous.

BVM: The taxi drivers are obviously random. But taxis all over the world are controlled by the very firm rules they have in those countries. Sometimes, it looks like they’re driving around in old cars, but all these countries have rules and regulations for their own taxi cabs.

When you’re filming overseas, do people know what’s going on?

BVM: They totally recognize us. It doesn’t matter where we go. They are people pointing at the flags and saying, “That’s the Amazing Race.”

ED: We’re always saying, “We don’t know what that is, we don’t know what those flags are.”

BVM: And people say, “We know you guys.” People get a kick out of it.

To what extent is what we see on television staged by your players? Are they acting?

BVM: You cannot act in front of these cameras. You can’t possibly do that 24 hours a day. Maybe once in a while they’ll try, but it immediately looks ridiculous and obvious.

What do you plan to do beyond The Amazing Race?

BVM: More exciting television. I’m also developing some ideas that could easily translate into a very good movie.

Scripted or unscripted?

BVM: Scripted.

Do you want to keep working with CBS?

BVM: Absolutely. We tremendously enjoy working with them.

Are there similarities to the stress the couples face on your show and the stress you go through as you produce the show? Is there the same kind of tension?

ED: This is a high-stress job for anybody. Even if we weren’t married, I think working together we would have our moments. Most of us do on this production. It’s just a matter of being able to say, “OK. That was work. Let’s go home and go out to dinner, and we can fight about dinner instead.”

BVM: It certainly has been a phenomenal adventure. I’ll be eternally grateful to Elise for coming up with such a simple idea that’s so complicated to produce.